As a hired gun engineer, my drummer credentials include recording Max Roach, Billy Higgins, Brain (Bryan) Mania (drummer for GunsNRoses, Primus, Tom Waits), Brady Blade (Emmylou Harris, Spyboys), Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, Ricky Martin, Melissa Etheridge), Steve Smith (Journey) and hundreds of other drummers.
Drums are my favorite instrument to record because they are always a challenge. No kit is ever the same. The question posed as to 'why do recorded drums sound so bad' is complicated. Below, I'll list some of the challenges we pro engineers face.
CURRENT HIT RECORD TRENDS and LOUD DISC MASTERING
The biggest reason for inadequate drum sound is trend towards loud mastering to compete with the latest hit record. Much of this is about getting a record to 'pop' when you put it in the disc player... translation, a loud recording. It's tough when the label or artist thinks loud is good and they hold the purse strings.
There are cases where music I've recorded and mixed became unrecognizable to me after mastering or mp3s were made. It is one of the reasons I started Blue Coast Records.... to regain control from beginning to end.
COMPENSATING FOR AN INADEQUATE DRUMMER
It's not that hard to get a good sound on drums, especially if no other instrument is playing. As you add instruments and make decisions on how to mix, different criteria for sound come into play. Unfortunately, drums often take a lower priority to vocals or other instruments when mixing. As the drums fall back into the mix, the inadequacy of the drummer becomes apparent.
An inexperienced drummer will not have control over the sound of his high hat or ride cymbal. Individual miking of drums and cymbals is not often sufficient to compensate. If you take out the 'loud' high hat mic, it will still bleed into all the other mics creating a less than definite sound of the hat, for example. If the drummer can't control how loud he plays his individual drums/cymbals you're destined for problems.
If you are familiar with the early Steely Dan drum sound, you'll notice a very 'tight' drum sound. I'm not a fan, but this style of recording will give you more control over the individual sound of the drums. It's achieved by recording each drum separately to a click track-- kick then snare then hat, etc. Or by padding up the drums with tape, etc, to lessen the bleed. Then, noise gates are applied to open only with the one drum is hit and compressed to re thicken.
To me, the sound achieved is dead and lifeless. Some of the finest engineers and my heroes have had to record in this style. I can't deny I've done it myself over the years.
In today's pop music, to compensate for a less talented drummer, the entire drum kit is compressed to 'even' out the sound, squish the cymbals and make the drummer sound more 'powerful'. Use of compression is an easy way to even out the performance and automatically removes the high and low frequencies naturally present. It turns to a thick pile of mud and helps disguise just how bad the drummer is!
DIGITAL MULTITRACK RECORDING FORMAT
I record my basic tracks to 2" tape or DSD where I have lots of headroom. But, as Steve mentioned, 80% of today's recordings are made at 44.1 on Protools. Most ADDA's used in recording to digital have uncontrollable compression built in to avoid going over the head room.
Rather than teach the engineer to record at a lower level, engineers are taught to record hot to get more bits active. Low level PCM recording has fewer bits and losses sonic life in these low levels.
Aside from 44.1 not having true high or low frequencies, percussive instruments especially suffer badly as transient frequencies slap the limit of dynamics and 'flat top'. There is a slight 'ticking' sound that resembles slapping your hands. Tape and DSD recording do not have these same issues.
MUCKING AROUND WITH DIGITAL PLUG INS
One way to run up a clients bill is to use digital plug ins that automatically put drums in time (beat detective). I'm very much against this practice and believe the lifeless perfection takes the personality away from the drummer. It also causes subtle artifacts that fly under the radar for most engineers, artists and public, but, I believe contribute to the public's gradual trend away from new music.
This technique is being used on even the finest drummers. You would be horrified to know that this is done in many current jazz recordings... and how many times I have to convince people to accept their slightly imperfect recording for the sake of the human emotional content.
It is unfortunate that pro engineers are not taught that every digital copy, consolidation, bounce or transfer results in lowered quality. Instead, they are taught to make their life easier by using these copying tools freely without considering the consequence. From Recording to Mix to Mastering to Replication there is a minimum of 3 digital transfers. You are not close to listening to the original master. After the master in the studio, it's all downhill.
CREATIVITY, DEADLINES AND REALITY
Some artists just want to do something differently, like Tom Waits. He'll have the drummer set up in the bathroom with one mic outside the door. I am guilty as charged. Sometimes, I just want the drums not sound like drums... for fun.
A big issue for an engineer is that if we're on the money clock of the artist or label, we often don't get much time to really get the 'right' sound all the time. You learn to move fast, get a great sound quickly and move on. The session can't be about getting the best possible sound on the drums or you'll lose the magic of the moment from the other artists. A good engineer is always conscious session momentum.
It's easy to fault my fellow engineers for ignoring the true sound of the drums. The luxury an amateur engineer has in time spent can result in some nice recordings. The test of a good professional engineer not only getting a great sound, but also a great performance within a time deadline. Even the finest engineers will say that time and money can interfere with the sound of the drums.
I run an active intern recording program at my studio, OTR Studios, which is one of the few in the country. We get audio students from around the globe who are completing their college programs. I am often horrified at the lack of knowledge of music and physics of sound they are taught in school. On the otherhand, I am happy to say my students all leave as intense listeners and the next generation of audiophiles.
I am part of a recording book written by Rick Clark that is going to be used as a college text book for recording. It has interviews by many, many excellent engineers who offer their expertise. You might want to check it out.
I was thrilled that Rick chose to include Extended Sound Environment (E.S.E) that was developed by Blue Coast Records for recording. It shows a commitment to more audiophile kinds of recordings.
Sorry for the long note, but, I was compelled to set the record straight for the pros and confirm that your findings are correct.. most recorded drums sounds sound bad!
It's a tough gig.